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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Tight on time? How to make the most of a short workout.

A plank exercise, which improves core strength, at a fitness studio in Portland, Ore., Feb. 2, 2023. (Gritchelle Fallesgon/The New York Times)

By Anna Maltby

When it comes to exercise, there’s a difference between what’s ideal and what’s, well, possible.

Maybe in a perfect world, you’d devote an hour a day to fitness, a finely tuned program of strength training and cardio. In the real world, it can be difficult. That’s OK, experts say: Even shorter bouts of exercise can have health benefits.

“There are certainly ‘optimal’ ways to train,” said Barb Puzanovova, a Nashville, Tennessee-based personal trainer and behavior change specialist, “but you can see increased mobility, better sleep, better strength and increased bone density with shorter, simpler workouts.”

Here’s how to make the most of your exercise time — even if you only have 15, 20 or 30 minutes.

Focus on strength training.

Jessie Mundell, a fitness trainer in Ontario, said she prioritizes resistance training when time is short. “Strength training is so effective at elevating the heart rate, and then bringing it down a bit during rest periods, and then back up again,” she said.

A 2021 analysis of 45 studies on resistance circuit-based training found that it improved not only muscle mass and strength but also several important markers of cardio-respiratory fitness, especially among people who were new to it.

Hit the major movement patterns.

“Working through movements you do in everyday life gives you better spatial awareness, coordination and overall strength to reduce your chance of getting hurt,” said Joe Holder, a personal trainer in New York. (If you are pregnant or have an injury or other condition, check with your doctor about which exercises are safest.)

— Squatting

Squat exercises involve bending at the hips, knees and ankles, and can strengthen your quadriceps, glutes and lots of small stabilizing muscles around the working joints. They help you with an essential daily activity: sitting down and standing back up. Examples include traditional squats (using weights or just your body weight), wider-stance sumo squats and lunges (forward, reverse and lateral).

— Hinges

With this movement, you keep your back straight while hinging at the hips, whether in a deadlift, glute bridge or kettlebell swing. The focus here is on the glutes and hamstrings, but your back and core get some attention, too. These types of exercises help you safely bend forward, pick heavy things up and put them back down, Mundell said.

— Pushing

Think pushups, as well as chest presses, overhead presses and push presses. Depending on whether you’re pushing vertically or horizontally, push movements can strengthen your chest, shoulders, triceps and upper back.

— Pulling

These movements, including rows of all kinds as well as pullups and chin-ups, are excellent for supporting your posture. They can help strengthen your back, your rotator cuffs and even your grip. If your goal is to move through the day with less back pain, Holder said, pulling exercises are key.

— Core

Your best bet is to have a menu of core exercises and mix it up — planks and crunches, sure, but also consider wood chops, bird dogs, farmer’s carries and beast pose. “To build a stronger core, you need to challenge your abdominal muscles with a variety of movements,” Mundell said.

Stick with “supersets.”

Supersets — when you move quickly from one exercise in a grouping to another, without taking a break — make a short workout efficient and challenging. Select one exercise from each category above (pick two for your core) and group them into three pairs. For example:

— Superset 1: Squats and pushups

— Superset 2: Glute bridges and single-arm rows

— Superset 3: Wood chops and bird dogs

Do each exercise for 45 seconds to one minute, or for eight to 12 reps. Do the second exercise in the superset immediately after the first to keep your heart rate elevated, then take a short break before repeating the superset or proceeding to the next one. Try to complete at least two rounds of each superset.

Warm up first and stretch after — if you want.

Puzanovova said it’s a good idea to fit in a short warm-up beforehand to increase your heart rate and prepare for some of the more challenging movements. Consider three to five minutes of marching or jogging in place to raise your heart rate, shoulder and hip circles to warm up your joints, and body-weight squats and lunges to get ready for your weight workout.

But “if the warm-up is a barrier mentally or time-wise, just get into the workout right away and take that first round of the superset at a lighter weight,” Mundell said.

If you love to stretch after you exercise, go ahead, she added. “But you can also skip it, and just let good enough be good enough on that day.”

After a couple of weeks, take stock of how your body is feeling: Are you less stiff? Is it a little easier to lift an object onto a high shelf? Are you noticing improvements in your sleep, stress or energy levels? You’re on the right track, Puzanovova said.

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